An Old Friend Brings Bad Tidings in Charles Burnett’s Masterful ‘To Sleep With Anger’


Whether by design or pure serendipity, 2016 has turned out to be a celebratory year for three of the most distinguished alums of the L.A. Rebellion movement, a constellation of black auteurs who studied at UCLA Film School between the late 1960s and the late ’80s. In February, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead — the first completed work by Billy Woodberry since his gutting debut, Bless Their Little Hearts (1983) — opened MoMA’s “Documentary Fortnight” showcase (an event that occasioned this terrific interview with the director by the Voice‘s Danny King). Now a quarter-century old, Julie Dash’s oneiric Daughters of the Dust, a key influence on many of the set pieces in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, will be rereleased, in a 2K restoration, in theaters in November. And for a week beginning this Friday, the FSLC hosts a revival run of Charles Burnett’s digitally restored third feature, To Sleep With Anger (1990), one of the finest films to explore city versus country, old ways versus new, kin versus kin.

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1944 and a resident of South Central Los Angeles (where many of his films take place) for most of his life, Burnett, in his first three films especially, is ever astute about the complexity of families, highlighting the strain of obligations to blood ties. His UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep (1977), a remarkable evocation of daily hardship and joy, revolves around an abattoir worker whose family is just barely eking out a marginally comfortable existence in Watts. The droller My Brother’s Wedding (1983) tracks a thirty-year-old man who’s still living at home with (and working for) Mom and Dad and is consumed with disdain for his sibling’s upwardly mobile fiancée. Some of these familial fissures recur in To Sleep With Anger, though here the ensemble is larger and the domestic drama is entwined with the supernatural.

Burnett’s flawless blending of impeccably observed realism and the fantastic animates the opening scene. Gideon (Paul Butler), the stout patriarch of the central clan, sits, weary-looking and sweat-soaked, at a table, facing the audience as Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Precious Memories” plays on the soundtrack. Nearly motionless save for the twiddling of his thumbs, he becomes part of a bizarre still life: A bowl of fruit by his elbow soon sprouts flames, the mini-conflagration later dancing on the tops of Gideon’s white loafers.

No explanation is given for these micro-infernos, and none is needed. They presage the appearance of Harry (Danny Glover, in his best performance), a charismatic — and malevolent — bumpkin from “down home” whose arrival at Gideon’s solidly middle-class, two-story South Central home upends the lives of his family and friends. Angelenos for three decades, Gideon and his spouse, Suzie (Mary Alice), a midwife who teaches Lamaze classes to black and white couples in their living room, haven’t entirely shed their Southern, “country” customs — an attachment that their houseguest will insidiously exploit to his advantage.

“I always make me a pallet on the floor,” Harry tells Suzie on his first night in her home, insisting he doesn’t want to be any trouble. Soon, though, he’s commanding Gideon and Suzie’s younger son — a grown man, with his own family, burdened with the infantilizing nickname Babe Brother (Richard Brooks) — to turn off the tap for him and clean the tub. The younger man doesn’t balk at the request; Babe Brother has become entranced by Harry and starts to emulate the old head’s masculinist prerogative, which puts further strain on his relationship with his parents, wife (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and older sibling (Carl Lumbly). The down-home drifter’s arrival also puts a strain on Gideon’s heart: He suffers mysterious stroke-like symptoms and is bedridden for three weeks.

As Harry begins to overstay his welcome, one former Southerner, Hattie (Ethel Ayler) — superbly drawn, like all of the film’s primary and secondary characters — perfectly articulates his dual nature: “Back home, Harry always did try to act like the colored gentleman. But he’s evil.” He is, but Burnett has sympathy for this devil, a trickster who creates chaos that forces those in its wake to confront long-simmering resentments and still-raw wounds.

Dusted with paranormal activity, To Sleep With Anger is foremost a film dedicated to capturing the nuances of real-world intimacy. “Why don’t you shut the door and come on over here?” Gideon, smiling wide and patting the bed, says to Suzie. She stares at him silently and exits the room to tend to their grandson — but softens her rebuff with a knowing wink. This brief scene communicates, better than many films devoted solely to the subject, the delights and disappointments of enduring unions, dyads that require the constant balance of desires and duties.

The film is also, of course, a reflection on reconciling the past — specifically, the Second Great Migration, in which millions of African Americans from the South, from roughly World War II through 1970, relocated to, among other areas, large cities in the West — with the present. It’s difficult to watch To Sleep With Anger without thinking about its maker’s own past, and his future. Burnett followed up this movie with The Glass Shield (1994), a scorching, intricate look at racism and police corruption, which will screen at Walter Reade on 35mm on September 10. This singular filmmaker has never stopped working, but this has been the last of his movies to date to have been picked up for theatrical distribution. When I covered MoMA’s complete Burnett retrospective for this paper in 2011, I wrote that he was slated to direct a documentary on Stanley Ann Dunham, President Obama’s mother. No one is better qualified to helm this project, though I’m not sure of its current status. You can ask the filmmaker himself: Burnett will be at the Film Society for the opening weekend of To Sleep With Anger.

To Sleep With Anger

Written and directed by Charles Burnett

Sony Pictures

Film Society of Lincoln Center, September 9–15